The adjectives have flowed freely following the death of William Donald Schaefer: mercurial, demanding, indomitable, irascible, autocratic, quirky, impatient, impossible, insufferable, inspiring, extraordinary.
Each is accurate and yet each is incomplete because each shows only one facet of an extraordinarily complex person. Even all of the adjectives combined don’t paint a complete picture of the intensely private man who led an intensely public life for nearly a half-century, serving his city and state during 16 years on the Baltimore City Council, four terms as mayor and two terms each as governor and state comptroller.
The Schaefer memories came flooding back this week — plunging into the seal pool at the National Aquarium in a Victorian swimsuit while holding a rubber ducky, crying over the sinking of the Pride of Baltimore, seizing opportunity in the rotting wharves of the Inner Harbor, championing a downtown sports complex that is now home for the Orioles and the Ravens.
He loved doing the impossible. As governor, he even found a way around chronic bottlenecks that had plagued beach-bound motorists for decades. But more than doing the impossible, he loved convincing others that the impossible wasn’t really impossible at all.
That was his greatest gift to Baltimore, a city with a decided inferiority complex until William Donald Schaefer assumed the role of cheerleader-in-chief. The Baltimore in Mr. Schaefer’s heart and mind was a great city, and as mayor, he willed it to be so.
Paying as much attention to city neighborhoods as he did downtown, visiting and listening to working-class citizens as well as titans of commerce and industry, Mr. Schaefer worked his peculiar magic on the city’s psyche.
When he wasn’t playing that role, Mr. Schaefer was zooming around town in his limousine, spotting blemishes on the face of his beloved Baltimore — trash on streets and in alleys, potholes, abandoned vehicles, unsightly abandoned houses — and barking orders to clean up the mess and “do it now.”
Were there missteps and misstatements along the way? Plenty. Was there a lack of political correctness, especially in the later years? You bet.
Are Baltimore and Maryland far better off today because of William Donald Schaefer? Without a doubt.
His contributions are nothing short of extraordinary. His legacy will endure and his longevity in high public office is a feat not likely to be repeated.
Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive and now president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo, said it best: “The man was, for the last century, probably the most significant public servant that Maryland has had.”
The highest honor Baltimore can give Mr. Schaefer now is for its public and private sectors to unite behind a plan for the next phase of the city’s renaissance — convention center, arena, Inner Harbor, central business district, neighborhoods, Superblock, State Center — and to “do it now.”